Friday, February 26, 2016

County Board Member Explains Slave Buildings Move

Slave building being moved (from WTVR coverage here)
Over quite a bit of well-publicized protest, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors has managed this week to move a slave cabin and kitchen house, which rested on a prime piece of real estate at the Greenfield Industrial Park. The cabin and kitchen house are historic relics from the mid-19th Century which were occupied by slaves.

John Williamson
Protesters have railed against racial, historic and cultural insensitivity in the move to the front of the industrial park and little has been heard publicly from the board of supervisors. 

An old friend of mine--John Williamson--is a member of that board and I have always known John to be an honorable and honest man, anything but a racist and a man keenly in tune with history and culture. He is well aware of the significance of the buildings and wrote a detailed explanation of the reasons behind the move, which has not been made public, as far as I know.

According to his paper, the board's logic in moving the buildings were financial and economic: a planned 100,000-square-foot shell building (which can be expanded to 250,000 square feet) will be built at a cost of $3 million, borne by the Roanoke Valley Development Foundation. John says that "conservatively," the value of the investment could reach $45 million and involve "hundreds of jobs" for the county. It is, he insists, a "prime" economic development location.

The county has a development-ready pad near the site that opponents to the cabin move would prefer to see developed, but John insists that the two sites, one developed, would make Botetourt County highly attractive to companies wanting to move or expand. The cabins on one site have been an inhibitor. 

Meanwhile, says John, the cabins "are deteriorating" and "will be stabilized" in the new location, which will feature historic attractions. 

In order to get the board's--mostly John's--take on what  is going on, I asked him some blunt questions. Although the opponents of the move have asked me to help with publicity (and I have accommodated), I have no dog in this fight. I have been, however, a board member of the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation and am keenly aware of the value of historic buildings. 

Here is the e-mail we exchanged:

Can you give me the rationale the board of supervisors is using in moving the old slave buildings from Greenfield?  From the outside and from reading the literature of those in opposition, this situation falls into several negative categories: 

Point: Racism (overt, blatant and reckless)
John: Simply not true. The white radical historical preservationist played the race card on this after their efforts to wrest control of the property to their personal preferential use failed. I know no white person in the Friends of Greenfield that has a track record of service to the black community greater than mine. I should be offended, but am not. I know what the truth is.) 

Point: The board following through with a decision without considering citizen input, without considering historical culture and with no consideration of the decedents of the slaves who lived there.

John: The fact that public input did not change the decision does not mean they did not have an opportunity. If my memory serves correctly the older black lady (I will list no names) that claims to be a descendant of Greenfield slaves has spoken at four Board of Supervisors meetings. I am sure she believes she has relatives in unmarked graves on the hill near the cabins. The fact that she believes it does not make it so. Several archaeology reviews indicate otherwise.  So does logic. 

The cabins are adjacent to the old manor house that burned 60 years ago. The racist of 170 years ago would not have buried slave in the equivalent of the mansion grounds when there are three graveyards on the property located half a mile away. We have been receptive to their concerns. However they have no unique claims to that property. Neither do the white descendants of that property. 

The property has sold multiple times. A former inhabitant does not have a use claim. I cant go back to the old Williamson farm in Bedford County and tell the owners that they can't remove an old barn to make room for a new one. To assume such a right would be chaos. 

Point: The appearance that money trumps culture, especially when it is black culture. 
John: It is true there are millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs dependent on this decision. Your assertion however that it is an either or, is a false dichotomy. The cabins are being preserved by this board, while previous boards, the historical society and the minority community ignored them for the past 20 years( period of County ownership) and left then to continue to rot down. We are the ones preserving black culture, and frontier history just not in exactly the way that the arm chair white intelligentsia would prefer.)

Point: The situation doesn't look good from what I have learned. Please let me know your side.

John: It may not look good to you. I and the Board have not waged an unrelenting propaganda campaign as a small but very vocal minority has. They have played to the media and we have not. I don't need to trash the media, you know the score. Sell papers and air time. 

Everybody loves a messy story, especially if someone screams unresponsive big government and racist. I confess to being a little surprised at the single-minded unrelenting opposition of a talented small minority. 

Does not make them right only relentless in the pursuit of their selfish efforts to control this property that was bought and paid for by the common tax payer. The common tax payer who deserves for people like me to protect his interests. I intend to continue to do that.

(Photo: WTVR, here)


  1. Who buys a house and then expects someone else to maintain it? How many people wrote the Roanoke Times or the Herald in favor of exploiting the hill at Greenfield? How can Williamson say we have no right to tell the county what to do with the land, and yet he expects us to pay to restore/preserve contents on that land? Elizabeth Preston died over 50 years before the cemetery across the road was started - where is she buried? They had slaves in 1773 who lived and died before 1840 - where are they buried? Who is the "common taxpayer"? Only those who agree with Mr. Williamson's point of view? Anyone can see the lack of logic in these excuses for why he thought it necessary to bulldoze this hill. There are 600 other acres in Botetourt - there was no where else to put this building? Two previous supervisors said in 16 years there was NEVER a word said about moving the buildings. Yet when Mr. Williamson steps in, it's he first things he targets. He says he's a preservationist, but couldn't make another spot available in that entire area so Greenfield could be preserved? Does anyone else see the illogical logic Williamson uses to defend his position??

  2. I have no stake in this and don't even live in the Roanoke area but Williamson's tone and arguments seem reasonable. I appreciate his frankness about how things work with the media and at least some activists.

  3. I was able to obtain this letter that was sent to the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors following their "archaeological survey" at Greenfield, which was minimal at best. They did not share this letter with anyone, and once you read it, you'll know why. After reading this, does John Williamson sound like a preservationist to you, Dan? And for a spec building with no perspective tenant in a park with over 600 empty acres. What he has spearheaded is nothing short of sinful.

    February 8, 2016
    RE: Greenfield Preston Plantation Archaeological Research
    Dear Botetourt County Board of Supervisors,
    I write to you in my capacity as the president of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists (COVA). Founded in 1975, COVA is an organization of professional archaeologists whose mission is to foster public awareness and support for the preservation of archaeological resources in the Commonwealth. We also act as an independent professional advisory group for the Department of Historic Resources. Our membership is composed of over 80 professional archaeologists either working or conducting research in Virginia.
    I would like to encourage the Board of Supervisors to conduct a more thorough archaeological investigation of the Greenfield Preston Plantation's main complex of buildings and gardens prior to developing the site. Ideally we would also like for the Board of Supervisors to reconsider its plan to move the Greenfield Preston Plantation kitchen and slave cabin and create a true "preservation" center on the original site itself. The authenticity of place for these structures should not be sacrificed and can not be recreated. These buildings share a relationship with the landscape that makes them and the stories of the people who lived here more evocative than in a location where they are devoid of their context.
    There is significant research potential for this site, with an opportunity to better understand and interpret to the public the full range of prehistoric and historic occupation of what has become Botetourt County. Most powerfully, the impact and legacy of slavery can be told at this site. Expanded excavation and analysis of the areas around the quarters, kitchen, and location of the former historic main house could reveal significant new information about the daily lives of the individuals who lived and worked here, both white and black. The archaeology of slave quarters has provided insights into the lives of people who were often passed over in the documentary record, the things they left behind adding a layer of complexity and detail to the story of slavery.
    These types of sites are also being developed at a rapid pace, the standing structures falling to the bulldozer and no consideration given to any below ground archaeological remains. The Botetourt Center at Greenfield has a tremendous opportunity to not only preserve several of these increasingly rare structures, but also to thoughtfully and respectfully tell the story of these people's lives. We would additionally recommend that work be done to more thoroughly understand the terraced gardens. If these gardens date to the 1 or early 19th century they may represent one of the earliest examples of formal gardening and landscape design in this region of the Commonwealth.
    To help offset the costs of additional excavation I would recommend taking advantage of the Department of Historic Resources' Threatened Sites Fund. Funds through this program can be used to aid in the survey, excavation, analysis, and background research for archaeological sites that are facing destruction. If the decision remains to develop the site and grade the hilltop I would also recommend onsite monitoring by an archaeologist during grading to ensure that no human remains are impacted and to allow for recording any additional deposits that may be discovered.
    Resp ctfully,

    President, Council of Virginia Archaeologists